The hundred million tea break

Coffee break

Valuable work gets done in the breaks when running workshops

I’ve been running a large event kicking off the collective working capability for several parts of a multinational company.

There were people representing 4 organisations each of which had annual turnovers of several hundred million pounds.

I thought I’d share what happened.  We had to think on our feet a lot….


  • Developed the workshop bringing 20 or so people together to develop collective working capability over two days.
  • Spent weeks planning the event
  • Planned down to the minute (we had expected highly structured, task oriented types present)
  • On the day the plan got busted within the first 5 mins when the client asked for something different than I’d been told – ok we fitted that in.
  • Then these tasky, structured types started to get more creative and overran our timings, so we ran with the energy in the room and made space for this.
  • Did more prep in the break re-planning on the fly (this was possible because we’d put all that work in beforehand)
  • The end of the event we got real success achieved everything we set out to.

 So why am I telling you all this?

In the feedback session we asked what had gone really well about the event, where the real value was

The answer – It was the tea breaks where we got the most value

My inner reaction for a microsecond – OH NO!

[for those of you that facilitate you’ll know the mind works in the fast lane where you are stood up there]

Then it suddenly occurred:

  • Yes they were right, the real value was in the unstructured dialogue when people were relaxed
  • But if I’d just brought them together for a tea break :
    • They wouldn’t have come
    • Nothing would have happened
    • So the structure is needed to get things started
    • Then allow space for people to start to feel safe
    • Then allow time for all that relationship building stuff to kick in
    • Stand back and try not to interfere.

 So What?

Learning for me..

  • Build in longer breaks, let people talk
  • Allow space when people in the room get energised
  • Your plans can change
  • It’s the result for the people in the room that matters

The event was such a success we’ve been commissioned to take it to other parts of the organisation.

I’m now busy planning more overseas trips

Funny old world isn’t it.


3 thoughts on “The hundred million tea break

  1. I love it. First of all, using a facilitation team is a way to deal with changes in the plan as well. You need to have people to keep the process moving as you meet with the principals to ‘adjust’ the plan. Second, love the insights on the ‘tea breaks’. My gut reaction would have been to increase the number of tea breaks but keep them smaller in duration.

    One area in which I’ve also had success is to have the action / goal be expressed in a short burst of text, let’s say 140 characters (see my post on this below). If it can’t be expressed so everyone ( you, your team, the principals) can understand it and repeat it in 140 characters then we haven’t boiled it down enough.

    Great Post!

  2. HI Tim, Thanks for the comment. I’m planning the next of these events and was jugling in my mind whether to make the tea breaks longer of have more shorter ones. Your gut reaction is really helpful. I’ll do more shorter ones.

  3. Hi Adrian, so wise (just as we know you) and so true!
    It needs a lot of experience and “relaxedness” as a facilitator to really go with the flow without forgetting about the targets (and without feeling pressured by people who might think “what is s/he being paid for? Not doing anything”). Very good planning combined with a readiness to let go of it – I love that. (By the way, what is a “short” or a “long” teabreak? In Germany 15 mins would be “normal” during workshops. So long would be 30 mins. – I often just lengthen the normal break and then people feel they got an additional present 🙂


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